After six years of research that sent Kate Stewart trekking around the globe, the local author’s first biography offers a dazzling view into the life of a librarian who refused to walk the line.
“A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport” archives the harrowing, and at times brazen, tale of a librarian who championed access to information and balked at sexism in the workplace years before the Western feminist movement came to be.
Her ambition would drive her further still.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, Rappaport was only 10 years old when the Nazi Party rose to power. And in 1933, she needed to see for herself the book burnings that took place in her hometown, a world-renowned city of books at the time.
By age 15, Rappaport was floating through various foster homes in Zurich, Switzerland, as scores of Jewish children fled Germany. The independent, headstrong teen was searching for her place in her new locale as well as navigating the visa program that would land her in the United States a year later. Maybe without her knowing, this bespectacled girl was developing truisms that would develop her iconoclastic path—read ferociously, especially forbidden authors, and leap from the train if you don’t like its direction. The latter reference can be found in Stewart’s book. Although Rappaport lead a wanderer’s life, she always felt at home in a library.
What truly intrigued Stewart was Rappaport’s flawed nature. Whether it was her rationalizing having an extramarital affair or gossiping about a coworker, what Stewart found was Rappaport’s role was that of an antihero who wove a life through some of the most indelible moments of the 20th century.
“And I wanted to include these things about her that were negative,” Stewart said. “There’s plenty that people can still learn even though she’s not a totally wonderful, loving or perfect person all the time. Plus, I think a lot of people can identify with her struggles of feeling like an outsider.”
Stewart, a third-generation librarian, first heard about Rappaport via a colleague at the Library of Congress. Rappaport spent the last 22 years of her career working at the world’s largest library, which serves as the primary research arm of the U.S. Congress. In 2009, Stewart began her six-year stint at the Library of Congress, spending the majority of her tenure working at the American Folklife Center. Today, Stewart works as an archivist at the Arizona Historical Society on the University of Arizona campus.
What began as a simple invitation to an estate sale turned into a years-long journey for Stewart, bringing her to Switzerland, Germany, Israel and back. Stewart said part of what took the project years to complete was funding her various trips to retrace Rappaport’s life. But walking along the cities that Rappaport once knew helped Stewart envision her subject.
“And she was really great, in her diaries, at talking about the places she lived and where things happened, so I felt like I had to go,” Stewart said.
Stewart picked up some odds and ends at the sale, reluctantly adding more clutter to her apartment at the time, she said with a laugh. Then, she slowly started looking into Rappaport’s life and originally thought she would write an article about the late librarian. As Stewart began to uncover the lives her subject rubbed elbows with, she knew Rappaport’s tale was far more interesting than imagined.
For example, it took about a year for the feds to release Rappaport’s FBI file, Stewart said. The bureau investigated Rappaport while she worked as a typist and punch-card operator for the U.S. Army starting in the summer of 1952. She was attending the University of California, Berkeley—which would become both her undergraduate and graduate alma mater—at the time, returning to college at 27 years old as a non-traditional student. This was the peak of the Cold War-era Red Scare and Rappaport’s link to Max Lowenthal, the infamous Jewish lawyer and author of The Federal Bureau of Investigation, would be but one red flag.
“From the beginning, I thought her life was so unique and inspiring—and I am a deep believer in uncovering extraordinary stories among unassuming people,” Stewart said.
Rappaport was heavily involved in the Zionist movement throughout her life, serving the Junior Hadassah, the Seattle Zionist Youth Commission and, as an adult, the Zionist Organization of America.
She worked as both a reporter and editor at The Transcript, a Seattle-based weekly Jewish newspaper. In early 1948, she relocated to Israel to visit her sister, Miriam Schneider. During her year in the fledgling Jewish state, she became a photographer and correspondent for the Acme United Press.
Rappaport landed her first librarian gig with the U.S. Air Force in January 1959. She moved on to a lead librarian position with the U.S. Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity Saigon in the fall of 1962, building up the system from nothing. By the summer of 1966, the military’s library in Vietnam had 11 branches and was shipping 100,000 paperbacks and 75,000 magazines to 800 regional addresses every month.
In the fall of 1971, Rappaport returned stateside and began her new job at the Library of Congress, where she would finish her career amongst another book-lined sanctuary.
Stewart, like Rappaport, found solace inside the walls of libraries as a kid. At age 10, Stewart’s mother, Alice LaViolette, became a librarian and the library started coming to her, she recalls. When Stewart left her hometown of Kansas City for college, she found a home at various campus libraries while earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees. As an avid reader of biographies, Stewart isn’t surprised she chose to write someone’s life story, she said.
Overall, Stewart hopes her readers gain a better sense of the often invisible legacy of librarians, who concurrently take great pride when connecting readers to invaluable pieces of history.
“There is so much history to learn from Ruth’s life,” she said. “But ultimately, I want readers to walk away with a better understanding of the work that librarians do, why we are so devoted to it and how libraries can have such a huge impact on our lives.”